By Marty Mulrooney
Peter McConnell is an American video game music composer who has composed award-winning scores for nearly two decades. His credits include numerous titles from LucasArts, where he spent much of his early career composing in-house for games such as Monkey Island II, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Peter was recently kind enough to join Alternative Magazine Online for an exclusive online interview, where we got the opportunity to discuss his long and illustrious career in-depth.
Hi Peter, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I’ve been composing music for games since the early 90’s, in styles ranging from small ensemble jazz to cinematic orchestral music to heavy metal. I’ve also done live music in rock bands, as front man and electric violinist. My influences include Lalo Schifrin, John Williams, Enio Morricone, Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling, and I’m very much a child of the 60’s and 70’s, although I’d rather not admit that. I’ve lived in Switzerland, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Massachusetts and now California, where I live with my wife and two young children.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become a composer?
Probably when I was a year old or so, since supposedly I sang before I could talk, but of course I went through wanting to be a fireman, palaeontologist, and later a physicist and mathematician, before I had a conversion experience in electronics class in college. Really it was a matter of admitting what I had always wanted to do.
Is it true that you studied at Harvard University alongside Michael Land? How would you describe Michael?
Or you could say he studied along side me, since I’m a year older :). We’ve had a very long working relationship. He helped me record my senior thesis, we’ve played in bands together, and worked in three jobs together. He is one of the sharpest guys I know, a true visionary.
How did you become involved with LucasArts?
Michael brought me in on account of my musical and technical background. I moved out to the West Coast from the Boston area on Michael’s suggestion. Originally our plan had been to start a band together. By the time I made it out to California, he had gotten the job at LucasArts and needed someone to help him design what became the iMuse system.
You composed many soundtracks for LucasArts over the years. Can you recall some of the most memorable ones that you worked on for us?
The four that come to mind are Monkey Island II, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Monkey Island II was memorable because it was one of my earliest commercial music gigs – getting paid to write music was truly amazing – and because it represented the maiden flight of the iMuse system. Indy and the Fate of Atlantis because it was also an early iMuse game, and also my first exposure to how games could be truly cinematic. Hal Barwood the game designer has directed a few films and I learned a great deal from him on that project. Full Throttle because of the opportunity to integrate live Rock ‘n Roll with game underscore or background music. And finally Grim Fandango because Tim Schafer is a genius, and Grim was my first chance to do serious recording of live musicians. It’s still one of my favourite scores.
You co-invented iMUSE with Michael Land. What made this interactive music system unique?
iMuse was the first interactive music system to allow for transitions based on the actual content of the music. In other words, a change would happen in the game, then how that change was interpreted depended on what part of the music file was playing. Examples of this would be beat-synchronous transitions; i.e. when the system waits for the next beat or musically meaningful spot to make a transition, and part enabling, when particular instrumental tracks would be turned on or off, and the timing and choice of tracks would be determined in advance by the composer.
When composing the soundtrack for Full Throttle, you worked closely with rock group The Gone Jackals. How would you describe this experience?
It was a blast. Keith Karloff, the group’s leader, and I developed a close working relationship. We remixed a lot of the tracks together, plus there were press events and that sort of thing that we did together. The whole Full Throttle effort was a venture into new territory, both technical and aesthetic. We became kind of like brothers in arms.
How did The Gone Jackals become involved with the game?
Somehow I made it known that I was looking for demos of biker bands. I can’t remember how I got the word out, but shortly thereafter Keith pulled up to LucasArts on a bike with his tape. That was impressive by itself. But what was more impressive was when I was listening to the pile of tapes in the car while driving to band rehearsal and I popped his into the cassette player (remember those? :) ). It just blew all the other bands out of the water, including some pretty big names.
You also composed the soundtrack for Grim Fandango, which features a mixture of orchestral score, South American folk music, jazz, swing and big band sounds. This is one of my favourite video game soundtracks! How did you approach this project and where did the blueprint for such a unique soundtrack come from?
Hey, thanks. It was just what the game called for, really. Tim gave me a collection of Mexican folk music, really unique stuff played on crude instruments, plus his Humphrey Bogart videos. And I was a big jazz and film noire fan from my college days. There was also a nice Peruvian-style record by Gustavo Santaolalla that came out at the time called “Ronrocco” that was all charangos. A charango is a Latin American folk mandolin-like instrument usually made out of an Armadillo shell. I played one on the track for the gate to heaven. I also made many pilgrimages into the Mission district of San Francisco where on the same block you can hear Acid Jazz, 30’s swing and Mariachi bands playing in different clubs. So it was easy: Max Steiner + Mexican/Peruvian Folk Music + my old Ellington records + the Mission district = Grim Fandango.
Were you given any visual aids/game footage to work with?
I always try to work with as much visual material as possible. I was given background art for the whole game, plus builds of the game. We also did audio recordings of Tim speaking about each environment, as I will explain in more detail later.
What is your favourite song from Grim Fandango and why?
Hard to say. Probably Mr. Frustration Man or Swanky Maximino because of the awesome solos the guys did.
How closely did you work with Tim Schafer and how would you describe him as a person?
Closely I would say, and at the same time it was very much a parallel process. We actually recorded him talking about every single environment in the game, and then I made a big interactive iMuse chart out of it so you could click on a room and hear him talking about each situation. That chart turned out to be super useful. I in turn sent Tim little mp3 sketches made from my hand-held recorder of me singing and playing each theme before it got fleshed out. Tim is 100% dedicated to creative excellence and has a depth of writing and designing talent that is hard to describe. Really there’s no one like him in the business.
You left LucasArts in 2000, although you did contribute to Escape from Monkey Island and the Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island. What were your reasons for leaving?
Nearly 10 years at any place is a good long time, wouldn’t you say? I was ready to do things on my own.
After leaving LucasArts you worked once again with Tim Schafer, this time at his new game studio Double Fine Productions, where you composed the soundtracks for both Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. How would you describe the soundtracks for each of these titles and what new challenges – if any – did they pose?
Psychonauts was fun because of all the characters. Each character needed very special music, and we had some budget limitations, so getting just the right live instruments was part of the challenge. Brutal Legend was a fantastic challenge because I felt that the melding of orchestra and heavy metal band hadn’t been done yet the way I’d like to hear it. So I got to channel my inner 14-year-old – and employ some of the very best rock and classical players in the process.
Excluding the titles we have already discussed, what other games have you have worked on that you would consider highlights of your career?
Certainly the Sly Cooper games. Those are awesome and Sly is such a great character. Also Kinectimals, Kinectimals Gold and (my part of) Kinect Disney Adventures, all of which were big orchestral scores. Finally there’s Double Fine’s Stacking, and Once Upon a Monster, the recent Double Fine/Warner/Sesame Street collaboration. There have been so many, and I’ve been very fortunate.
You are one of the founding members of G.A.N.G. What does this abbreviation stand for and what benefits do G.A.N.G members enjoy?
G.A.N.G. stands for the Game Audio Network Guild. It’s an association of game audio professionals, and it gives members a chance to share knowledge about how to be better at what they do. I believe it has also raised the profile of Game Audio in the consciousness of developers, publishers and the public, which is good for all of us.
What projects are you currently working on at the moment and what does the future hold for you?
I wish I could say what I’m working on now, but of course I’m not allowed to. Super fun stuff, though, and a huge amount of it. As for the future, that’s always unknowable in this business.
Thank you for your time!
You’re very welcome!